With the acceleration of humanoid robot deployment, questions emerge regarding their significance in industries

Scarlett Evans, Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

February 26, 2024

6 Min Read
Humanoid robots in factories
Getty

Humanoid robots are poised for significant growth in 2024, as companies ramp up production of their designs amid intensifying competition to commercialize them. 

Many of these designs are pitched to supplement a dwindling labor force, as businesses across industries face ongoing staffing shortages and supply chain pressures. The promise of humanoids as a more efficient alternative is already driving investment interest, with designs backed by NASA, OpenAI and Intel, to name a few.

Elon Musk told reporters in a January earnings call that there was a “good chance” the first units of Tesla’s Optimus robot would be shipped to customers this year, while BMW signed a deal with Figure Robotics to deploy general-purpose robots at its warehouses, pitched as automating “difficult, unsafe or tedious” tasks.

However, questions as to just how useful these humanoid designs would be in a factory or warehouse setting are beginning to surface and despite claims by the likes of Musk that humanoid robots will one day outnumber humans, industrial deployment could remain a pipe dream.

Humanoids in the Warehouse

For many, the primary reason for opposing humanoid robotics in the warehouse comes down to practicality.

Over the years, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and robotic arms have proliferated in warehouse settings due to their compact, modular and mobile capabilities. The draw of a humanoid is its intricacy, adapted to mimic human dexterity and motion – something which is often too complex for warehouse tasks.

Related:Automation, Sustainability and Last-Mile Delivery: Robotics in 2024

“Humanoid robots have easily over 20 axes to enable them to mimic human movement,” said Romain Moulin, CEO of warehouse automation company Exotec. “In reality, you only need about three axes and a few rails to accomplish the same task,

“As it stands today, adding these robots to warehouse operations seems more like a pursuit of novelty rather than a well-considered operational decision.” 

Similarly, Semyon Dukach, One Way Ventures’ founding partner, said using humanoid designs for warehouse tasks is “illogical.”

“The limits of the human form are precisely why robots were developed to begin with,” Dukach said. “Recreating the human form is antithetical to the purpose of deploying robots in these settings … Thus far, the humanoid robots we’ve seen have not been able to vastly outperform humans in any of the tasks necessary to the manufacturing and industrial verticals.”

The bi-pedal nature of humanoids also makes them impractical for warehouse deployment. The flat surfaces and open spaces are better suited to wheeled robots or arms fixed to a station. 

“In an environment like a warehouse, the best way to move is with wheels,” said Moulin. “Introducing bipedal designs just creates a solution that’s too complex to solve your problem.” 

Similarly, PlusOne Robotics’ CEO Erik Nieves said many of the humanoid robot designs emerging are “over spec” for warehouse tasks. 

“Because labor is constrained, it seems logical to replace it with electromechanical labor,” said Nieves. “We have a labor problem and an apparent labor solution in these humanoid robots.

“But the truth is, humans are over spec for a lot of warehouse workflows. You don't need bipedal locomotion to get from point A to point B in the warehouse, you would be better off with that humanoid manipulation capability on a wheeled platform – it costs less and it’s way less complicated.”

While humanoids in their entirety are unlikely to see widespread adoption on the factory floor, there is a consensus that elements of the design will have transferable use cases for manufacturing. 

Mobility and Manipulation

According to Nieves, a cornerstone of humanoid design is the coupling of mobility and manipulation to create dexterous machines capable of walking like humans. 

Few warehouse tasks require both of these capabilities but individually they can provide important advances in factories.

“The value in humanoids is less in the locomotion part and more in the bi-manual manipulation part,” said Nieves. 

That is, creating two-handed systems that work in synchronicity, with particular use cases in the automotive industry as innovators look to automate increasingly intricate tasks.

“There are tasks in final assembly that have just been waiting for dual-armed manipulation,” said Nieves. “Some of the work that's happening in the humanoid arena is going to find utility in this space.”

Additionally, the neural capabilities of humanoids could be a game-changer for certain warehouse tasks, offering more in-depth, precise vision systems.

“The feature that’s perhaps most impressive to me is in terms of the sensors and vision capabilities,” said Moulin. “Sensing is incredibly important when it comes to robotics and if you look at the humanoid robots being built, they have significant vision and 3D-capture capabilities that can be reused, as well as machinery that will allow robots to evolve in any environment.

“When it comes to computation power, we can benefit from the AI that has rapidly developed over the past 20 years. Over the years we’ll see robots doing more and more things a human cannot do, and that even extends to seeing more accurately than human eyes.”

Other Humanoid Use Cases

That is not to say that humanoid designs will have no applications. Having machines that can walk and move like humans could have potentially significant use cases in situations where it may be too dangerous for humans to go.

“I could see humanoids being used for search-and-rescue and disaster efforts, or even nuclear environments where you need to send machines to places that are too dangerous for humans,” said Moulin. “In this kind of unpredictable environment, you need a machine that can do all the things a human can do, but that isn’t optimized for a specific task.”

Additionally, humanoids could be adopted for use in supply chains to take over tasks deemed too dirty, dangerous or dull for human workers.

“An example of where we do need mobility and manipulation together is in cluttered unloading tasks because you need two hands,” said Nieves. “Or in handling pharmaceuticals and controlled substances, workflows that require you get the humans out of that loop entirely.”

According to Dukach, humanoids also have potential in the caregiving and hospitality industries, once their emotional capabilities are fully developed.

“As the hardware improves and their movements become more fluid, humanoid robotics may have a future role to play in areas where it's useful to have a bridge between the physical world and advanced technology,” said Dukach. “This can provide emotional engagement and human interaction.” 

Crucially, however, innovators seem in agreement on the fact that humanoids are not the silver bullet to manufacturing that companies claim.

“Largely, the robotics industry has never been able to drive its own technology. We're simply not big enough,” said Nieves. “We've always had to rely on innovations coming from outside of us. So I applaud Apptronik and Figure and all of these folks, for trying to get the robot industry to drive its own technology.

“I hope they're successful in doing that, but I guarantee you that most of the technologies they develop will find more utility outside of humanoids than in that particular morphology.”

About the Author(s)

Scarlett Evans

Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

Scarlett Evans is the assistant editor for IoT World Today, with a particular focus on robotics and smart city technologies. Scarlett has previous experience in minerals and resources with Mine Australia, Mine Technology and Power Technology. She joined Informa in April 2022.

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